The Everyday Magic of 'Samurai Egg'
Looking inside Yoshiyuki Momose's film for 'Modest Heroes.'
In the discourse around anime, outsize attention goes to a few big names — people like Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon and Isao Takahata. It’s hard to complain, given their talent. Yet they do cast a shadow over other skilled directors who deserve to stand out, but often don’t.
Yoshiyuki Momose (now 68) has spent his life beneath this shadow. Not many have had careers in anime as grand and underappreciated. He was a top animator by the ‘70s, and in the ‘80s began a decades-long relationship with Studio Ghibli.
Momose is often called Isao Takahata’s “right-hand man.”1 This isn’t an exaggeration. Starting with Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Momose became one of the main people who turned the vision of Takahata — who couldn’t really draw — into concrete images. The anime critic Ben Ettinger once wrote:
I think few people grasp how important a role he played in bringing alive the realism of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. In Grave of the Fireflies, he drew the image boards that depicted Seita and Setsuko in various situations, many of which went straight into the film, and he drew the storyboard that established the visuals for the entire film based on Takahata’s script. For Only Yesterday Momose had to create a massively detailed storyboard to account for the nuanced acting and setting. He laid down much of the acting at the storyboard stage. The film was a rare case of [prescoring] (voices recorded first), and he went to the length of shooting video of the voice actors speaking their parts so that he could incorporate the little tics of how they spoke their lines into the acting.
For the rest of Takahata’s life, Momose was there, 20 feet from stardom. He was irreplaceable on Pom Poko (1994) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), and even contributed to The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013). At the same time, Momose became a director himself — leading Ghibli projects like Judy Jedy, Let’s Eat at Home and the wildly unique Ghiblies Episode 2.
That’s the background to Samurai Egg, one of Momose’s best and most ambitious directorial works to date. It’s a gem that deserves a closer look.